Across the road, September 2020
In suburban Melbourne, deep in a Covid lockdown keeping nearly everyone to within five kilometres of their home, the sound of Greensleeves is the sound of anticipation. The sound of promise and summer. The sound of hot days. The sound of ice-cream on your tongue, melting over your fingers, dripping onto your toes.
For Greensleeves is the tune played by the ice-cream van. You hear it before you see it. You’re standing in your kitchen or your sitting in your study or your weeding in your garden or you’re at the beach, and the familiar tune is there, in the air. It’s on the wind.
Greensleeves harks to 16th century England, when it was a song for lute and vocals:
Alas, my love, you do me wrong/To cast me off discourteously/For I have loved you well and long/Delighting in your company/Greensleeves was all my joy/Greensleeves was my delight/Greensleeves was my heart of gold…
One persistent theory is that King Henry VIII wrote the song about Ann Boleyn, the second of his six wives. Music historians note that the song, which was registered in 1580, was based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death in 1547.
Regardless of its origins, the song has endured for centuries and over 60 years ago became a favourite for ice-cream vans in England, New Zealand, and Australia. The founder of the Mr Whippy vans, Englishman Dominic Facchino, was apparently a fan of Henry VIII. When Mr Facchino was looking for a tune to herald the imminent arrival of Mr Whippy vans in local streets he settled upon the tune that was long credited to the notorious king. Elsewhere in the world of ice-cream vans you’re likely to hear the ragtime jazz tune The Entertainer in the United States and the French folk song Frere Jacque in, yes, France.
The day I heard Greensleeves in the neighbourhood I stepped out to the front path and looked up and down our street. A few neighbours did the same. We waved to each other.
Within minutes Greensleeves was playing loud and clear. Not on a lute, like all those years ago. Not sung by Olivia Newton–John. No, everyone knows that the ice-cream van version of Greensleeves is this weird, almost distorted organ-grinder sound, as if the cassette-player (I’m taking bets on some ice-creams van not having a CD player, let alone a USB stick or something like Spotify) was accidentally dunked in a pot of vanilla, or strawberry, or chocolate ice-cream all those years ago.
The van turns into our small street. Children appear. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…They are holding coins and notes. The children are taking a break from Covid-home schooling. Let’s call it an impromptu class in home economics.
They are standing in line on the nature strip, making their choices. Choc-top? Nuts? Gelati?
Greensleeves is quiet for now.
I admit that I am tempted. Very tempted. I have a very sweet tooth. But I don’t want to embarrass myself by elbowing away patient young children and forcing myself to the top of the line.
So I watch from a distance: this is what happens to childhood as you grow older, and older. You look at the innocence and you remember and you wish you were not so restrained these days…
Stereo Story #576
This story stems from a longer piece, A Scoop of Sunshine, published in The Big Issue Australia, January 2021
Bonus track: John Farnham singing ‘Mr Whippy’. No kidding. B side to ‘One’.